HC Deb 07 May 1998 vol 311 cc857-8
13. Mr. Stephen Timms (East Ham)

If he will make a statement on progress with his education action zone initiative. [40045]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

We have received 60 applications to become education action zones. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to announce 25 successful candidates in June, of which 12 will start in September, and 13 in January 1999.

Mr. Timms

Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to study the bid submitted by the London borough of Newham for Eastleigh school and its feeder primaries in the south-west of the borough? If so, has he noticed the high level of private sector support for that bid? We have £250,000 from East London Partnerships, an organisation wholly funded by the private sector, and substantial contributions amounting to more than £1 million in cash and kind for the first year of the programme from leading individual private sector firms including BT, Bull Information Systems, IBM, Arthur Andersen and Docklands Light Railway.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the bid's success in attracting such a high level of support shows the huge potential of the Government's partnership approach to education? Will he bear firmly in mind the strength of that bid as he adjudicates between it and the other 59 bids over the next six weeks? May I draw it to his attention that the Newham bid is ready and eager to roll from September, and would not have to wait until January?

Mr. Byers

The point has been taken, but Newham is one of a number of bids that have in an exciting way motivated and enthused not only local education authorities but the private sector to become involved. I believe that it will prove to be one of the most exciting initiatives on which the Government have embarked and will provide the opportunity to target resources from the private sector, central Government and LEAs. There will be one clear objective—to raise standards in schools and areas where there is underperformance and underachievement. It is an exciting initiative and I greatly welcome the enthusiasm with which people throughout the country have responded to it.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I know that the Minister is aware that there is a bid for an education action zone in a deprived part of my constituency; I am sure that his Department will give equal consideration to it. Is he aware that heads of schools in bid areas have heard informally that his Department may use education action zones to try out the new ideas for four-term years or reduced status for head teachers? Will he give an absolute assurance that education action zones will not become laboratories for the latest fads and fashions emanating from his Department?

Mr. Byers

Education action zones will build on best practice and ensure that in areas such as Surrey, standards can be raised. The hon. Gentleman should address some of his comments to Surrey county council, which has had a 5.5 per cent. increase in its education standard spending assessment but has passed on only 3 per cent. of it to its schools. If the council was serious about raising standards in its schools it would have made a substantial contribution by passing on to its schools the money given by the Government.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will it be possible to extend the concept of education action zones as quickly as possible to other areas of the country, as the initiative is designed to tackle the incredible levels of underachievement in many of the most difficult areas of the country? Our children deserve much better. Can my hon. Friend confirm that he will as speedily as possible implement the existing scheme and extend it as widely as possible?

Mr. Byers

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State plans 25 action zones in the coming school year. We shall want to reflect on their success, especially of the first 12, which will be established in September. We are confident that they will be successful, so we shall want to expand the programme. We shall need to take a little time to see exactly what has been successful so that we can learn from the best and ensure that we can extend the benefits of the education action zone initiative to all our schools, not just the initial 25.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

Does the Minister accept that many of those who welcomed the Government's ideas for education action zones and thought that they might represent some of the first tangible evidence of what Ministers meant when they talked about that elusive concept of the third way are now increasingly concerned that the Minister's third way for schools is turning into a cul de sac? Education action zones were presented as an alternative to local education authority management of schools. Professor Barber even speculated publicly that they might lead to schools being managed by Procter and Gamble. Now that the applications are in, is it not clear that the truth is significantly different? Can the Minister confirm that every one of the 60 applications that he has received were led by the LEA? Can he explain to the House what price the third way now?

Mr. Byers

It would be inappropriate for me to give details of the 60 applications, but it is not true to say that all 60 are led by LEAs. There is a good mix of applications and the Government will be looking for strong applications. We shall not adopt a position based on dogma. We shall look at what is best and what will work in practice, putting the interests of children first. We believe that education action zones might show the way forward for the future and, by doing that, we shall ensure that we can provide the best quality education for all our children, not just a few.